BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
Much like IT infrastructure, UC and collaboration technologies are becoming more complicated. To avoid this complexity, businesses are looking to the cloud as an outsourcing option. But moving UC to a cloud environment looks like a risky venture to many enterprises that require reliable and secure communications and collaboration.
Countless Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) options are emerging as many vendors and service providers jump on the cloud bandwagon. But while some UCaaS providers are offering true, multi-tenant cloud unified communications (UC), other providers are delivering a more static and traditional hosted UC service.
"There are a lot of providers right now that are actually just offering [a] hosted service delivery model [for UC] once you peel back the layers," said Jim Lundy, CEO and founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aragon Research Inc.
Hosted UC offers a segregated environment, in which each enterprise is provided its own dedicated networking capacity and physical infrastructure to run their UC applications. Enterprises move their existing UC infrastructure into someone else's data center in a hosted delivery model, said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Mokena, Ill.-based Nemertes Research Group Inc. Many UCaaS providers present this service as cloud-based UC.
In a multi-tenant cloud UC environment, many enterprises compute capacity, networking resources and even UC application instances with other customers in a provider's data center. While this service delivery model is typically cheaper than hosted UC -- a desirable option for SMBs -- businesses have little room to modify their applications and may run a higher risk of downtime, Lazar noted.
Regardless of whether providers are offering a multi-tenant or hosted UCaaS delivery model, enterprises must have scalable and reliable UC and collaboration tools. An IT organization should understand a provider's delivery model before assessing these service capabilities.
Hosted versus multi-tenant UCaaS: What are providers really offering?
UC vendors often offer multi-tenant cloud services or they sell their products through cloud providers or network service providers who in turn resell UCaaS to enterprises. While this UC model is attractive to smaller companies thanks to its flexible pricing, some enterprises worry about service and network reliability. Cisco might have a great reputation in UC, but the cloud provider selling cloud-based Cisco UC has its own reputation to earn.
"When choosing a [multi-tenant UCaaS service], the enterprise must decide if they trust the provider that vendor is using to deliver their UC service in the cloud," said Ken Landoline, principal analyst of unified communications and contact center for Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc.
Some industries don't have a choice over what UCaaS delivery model they use. Finance and health care companies are opting for hosted environments in which their data is physically separated on dedicated infrastructures inside the providers' data center, offering little opportunity for data to be swapped or misplaced.
"Some industries have strict policies against using any shared environments, so they are choosing hosted UC offerings," Lazar said.
Despite what's under the hood, UCaaS services deliver similar results
Whether multi-tenant or hosted, the underlying service should be indistinguishable to the end user.
VOSS Technology, a Richardson, Texas- based UC and collaboration management provider and Cisco partner, offers software for the management and provisioning of Cisco's Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS) for large enterprises and service providers. The company has been working with another Cisco partner -- managed service provider NWN -- to offer hosted collaboration service to enterprises.
While Cisco HCS can be offered as both a hosted or multi-tenant application, VOSS Technology allows NWN to offer each customer its own UC services in the same way they would have them running in their own data center, said Drew Phelps, vice president of NCare managed services at NWN, noting that customers like the security they are receiving from the hosted environment.
While customers enjoy the benefits of a hosted, rather than a shared environment, NWN is able to efficiently deploy new customers and manage multiple customers using VOSS Technology from a single interface, he noted.
"Within this hosted model, we are keeping [Cisco HCS] provisions up to date, making sure the applications are running at peak performance and are available to our customers at all times," Phelps said.
Reading between the UCaaS lines
Some smaller providers and vendors touting multi-tenant UC are likely offering "glorified hosted UC," while larger vendors -- like Cisco and Citrix -- are offering true, multi-tenant UCaaS offerings, Lundy noted.
"Cisco has both hosted and multi-tenant UC offerings, and will offer customers the choice between both service delivery options," he said.
But if enterprises prefer one UC service delivery model over another, they must do a little digging to determine if a provider is using the term "cloud" loosely, Landoline said.
"Enterprises should ask about the cloud operating system -- like is it a Cisco or Genesis system for example. A cloud operating system means multi-tenant," Landoline said.
If a cloud operating system is running the UCaaS offering, Aragon's Lundy noted that enterprises should request to see reporting statistics on uptime or voice reliability. Despite the physical differences between multi-tenant and hosted UC environments, many concerns associated with multi-tenant UCaaS -- like security -- are overblown, Lazar noted.
"While some enterprises may feel safer in a hosted UC environment on their own dedicated server, I'm not aware of any major data breaches in a shared environment related to UC," Landoline agreed, noting that large providers offering cloud services have well-tested offerings.
Regardless of the UCaaS delivery platform, performance, reliability and scalability are crucial. "If an enterprise needs to make a worldwide VoIP call, it just needs to work," Lundy said, noting that customers need to be guaranteed that "their soft phone offering will be just like having a PBX in the building."
And true, multi-tenant UC offerings should live up to the service-level agreement (SLA), he noted.
"Vendors need to start being upfront with their clients, and enterprises need to pay close attention to the terms and conditions of what they are buying," he said.